Think hard about learning – and don’t be fooled by pseudo improvement, says academic

Janet Downs's picture
Second in a series of threads based on lectures at ResearchEd 2013. The one below summarises the second part of a presentation by Professor Coe, Durham University, on evidence-based education. The thread summarizing the first part is here.

There are four steps to improvement, said Professor Coe. These are:

First: Think hard about learning. Educations systems aren’t always focused on learning but concentrate on things as managing behaviour, compliance and getting lots of work done.

Thinking hard means getting stuck.

Busy pupils might appear to be learning, but this can be deceptive. Some pupils may give the “right” answer but this doesn’t mean they’ve understood or could summarise the answer independently. The classroom may be calm; the teacher in control. But this doesn’t mean that learning is taking place.

“Learning happens when people have to think hard.” And thinking hard means getting stuck.

Second: Invest in good quality professional development. Much professional development is superficial and too short. The best professional development is intense (minimum 15 hours), sustained (minimum two terms), content focused, active (trying things out and discussing), supported (external feedback, networks) and evidence based (strategies are underpinned by robust evaluation evidence - my comment: and not by the prejudices of school ministers).

Third: Evaluate learning quality. Classroom observation could become the next “Brain Gym” whereby an idea, not backed up by evidence, is taken up enthusiastically especially when critical faculties are disabled. There’s no evidence that teachers observing teachers works, says Professor Coe.

Observation won’t be valid if it doesn’t really reflect teaching quality. Validity is compromised by bias, inconsistency and “spurious confounds” (eg charisma, apparent confidence, pupils’ behaviour.”

And there’s no point doing it if it has no impact and doesn’t lead to improvement.

Fourth: Evaluate impact of changes. Mistakes can be made in measuring whether improvement has taken place because of an intervention. Some improvement (I’ve called it pseudo improvement) can be encouraged by:

1 Choosing underperforming schools. Professor Coe says “most things self-correct or revert to expectations”. Those who put into practice the intervention (whatever it was) can then claim credit for the “improvement”.

2 Picking on any intervention and evaluating it by asking everyone who helped whether the initiative worked. They’re likely to say yes because people don’t like to think they’ve been wasting effort.

3 Defining “improvement” on teacher perception. Under NO circumstances conduct any proper assessment of impact.

4 Studying schools which recognize they’ve got a problem and are prepared to try anything. They would probably improve whatever intervention is chosen.

5 Conducting poor quality evaluation which is more likely to show positive gains.

6 Focusing only on any noticeable improvement and ignoring any negative signs.

7 Putting effort into marketing the school. This should attract a better quality intake. Results will improve.

Key elements of good evaluation:

1 Clear, well-defined intervention which can be replicated;

2 Accurate assessment of appropriate outcomes;

3 A well-matched comparison group.

4 Professor Coe recommended the EEF DIY Evaluation Guide


Professor Coe’s presentation is downloadable here.

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